Learning to Love Summer

I distinctly remember the summer immediately following my graduation from college. It was my first such season without academic bookends marking a restful reprieve from “real” work.

I’d had summer jobs, sure, but they were all part-time and mostly still allowed me to indulge in late-night tomfoolery and noonly sleep-ins, as is the custom of youthful degenerates doing it right.

Then, I graduated, and such antics came to an exhausting, screeching halt.

I recall sitting at my desk in a newsroom, having just dragged myself inside from a sweltering lunchbreak in a nearby park, and watching the clock tick by, despite global warming, at a glacial pace. I had to be at work – 50 minutes’ commute away – at 7 a.m. and wondered if and how I could ever make it through an entire summer without a meaningful break, and why Americans were so darn ambitious?! French people take off the entire month of August, and is socialism really that bad, after all…?

So was manifested my decided distaste of summer. I adopted whole-heartedly, as I do most things he says, P.J. O’Rourke’s assessment of summer and summer vacations: “For everyone this side of Nome,” he once wrote, “summer vacation in the summer is like having a coffee break at 2 a.m.”

But this summer, a certain, it’s-polite-not-to-ask-how-many years later, was different. I think my shrugging acceptance of the season everyone else except me has heretofore longed for for unknown reasons came about through a combination of attending daily Mass as often as possible and a can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em attitude derived from “Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence.” This must-read little book instructs us that, “We should avoid saying, ‘What awful heat!’ ‘What terrible cold!’ ‘What shocking weather!’ ‘Just my bad luck!’ and other expressions of the same kind which only serve to show our lack of faith and of submission to God’s will.”

Anyway. I decided truly to try to embrace the Northeastern Summer of 2019 and all the “awful heat,” humidity, “shocking weather,” bug bites, sunburns, awkward weddings, flip flops, oppressive overgrowth, and deafening racket of cicadas that came with it.

My first clear memory of June begins with a seminar on how to forage for wild mushrooms. Things became very agrarian from there.  

A friend and I planted a garden. It’s mostly heirloom tomatoes with one very aggressive cucumber plant that has overwhelmed us. (Seriously, if anyone has a hankering for cucumbers, let me know.) One week early on, we visited our local Rural King store thrice, saw lots of Amish folk while we shopped for plants and supplies, then ran out of gas on the side of the road beside a field of cornlets. We listened to country music on the AM station in the 20-year-old Chevy truck and chatted while we waited for dusk to descend and AAA to come to our rescue. There are worse ways to pass a summer evening.

Now, nearly three months later, “Mr. Stripey” is finally making his debut. Watching him and his edible friends come to fruitful fruition with very little effort on the part of his caretakers has been very satisfying. Looking over our little plot of plants thriving in the bountiful sunshine, I genuinely feel a union with our God of Genesis who said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you…God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.”

June also meant getting the winter wood in the woodshed. I participated in the chain-sawing, chopping, splitting, and stacking of logs just enough to savor the scent of fresh sawdust – which is the sweetest smell in all the world. Except for the fragrance of whatever feed they give the Holsteins at the Penn State University Dairy Complex.

I grew up on an historic property in Central Pennsylvania that was once, not very many years ago, a dairy farm. The outbuildings still stand in relatively good shape, and I have a romanticized notion of turning the place back into a working farm one day (if the government doesn’t completely destroy the dairy industry by then) – taking advantage of hedonistic hipsters by hocking them outrageously overpriced milk – or with agritourism, in which I shall dupe them into paying me to do the farm chores.

So I worked every other weekend this summer at Penn State’s dairy farm to get a taste of things. This farm was very large (it’s at a research university), clean, scientific, and advanced. Yet something about having liquid  cow manure splattered on my face at 5 a.m. while “Rednecker Than You” blasted overhead in the milking parlor made it seem as downhome as any rural farm in America.

But truly the smell of the feed is what I cannot get out of my mind. The mixture of hay, ground corn, grain, sunshine, soil, hard work, and wholesomeness – it smells like how the simultaneous sipping of a hot toddy and the warm embrace of a loved one feels. I can’t quite describe it, but everyone should experience it. Just as they should experience the glory of rosy-fingered dawn, at least once a month. Rising while the sun was still sleeping was painful, and taking a “lunch break” at 9:30 a.m. took some getting used to, but seeing a sunrise is always exciting, isn’t it? As if you and the Creator are in on a secret together – scheming in silence on the day’s events while everyone else in the world is barely beginning to stir.

My brief farm life also made me aware of a whole new world concealed behind towering stalks of corn and sprawling acres of crops. Lancaster Farming is an impressively comprehensive weekly newspaper covering everything from the Pennsylvania leek market to the “Monthly Bison Carcass Report.” The classified ads are the best and densest part of the publication. There you can barter geese hunting land for farm work with some good ol’ boys (sure beats city hipsters!) and buy and sell all kinds of equipment and livestock – even homing pigeons! Someone also took out a bold ad that simply says, “I BUY TRUCKER HAT COLLECTIONS.”

Of course summer isn’t summer without the incessant mowing of lawns, which brings its own familiar perfume. After weeks of managing nature, I came to the realization that there’s honest comfort in the cyclical work of the seasons. There’s a relaxing rhythm that comes knowing the grass will need to be cut in three days’ time, the garden will need to be tended to, the cows with need to be milked, the wood chopped, and so forth.

The aspects of an existence hinged largely upon the reliable moods of Mother Nature were a primary topic of the summer trap league I joined, and which became a highlight of my week. Each Tuesday afternoon, I’d escape to a sportsmen’s club where time stood still. Cellphone service was nonexistent, and all the clocks on the walls of the clubhouse told a different time.

Mature gentlemen alternatively named John or Jim would discuss the likelihood of rain, their pickling recipes and ZTR mowers, how the Monarch butterflies were faring this year, the vermin their hunting dogs had disposed of that week, and other such simple and calming conversation. I am not good at shooting trap, but it was fun to learn and to listen to the variant ways some of the more grizzled men yelled “Pull!” – some a cross between a pirate and the sounds Leonardo DiCaprio grunted in The Revenant. As I watched, I was set free to ponder the etymology of the word “coleslaw” and indulge in a 50-cent can of Pepsi invariably bestowed upon me by a sweet veteran coal miner with a “USA” hat and a twinkle in his eye.

My August was much the same as June and July with the exciting inclusion of the Mid-Atlantic Overland Festival. “Overlanding” is, according to the festival’s website, “self-reliant adventure travel to remote destinations where the journey is the primary goal.”

Thomas Henwood of Main Line Overland, the event’s organizer, told me overlanding is essentially car camping, though to me the “cars” looked like macho 4×4 machines worthy of Mad Max. Think $30,000 Tacoma pickups upgraded to be worth $90k with tactical tires, an aggressive lift kit, a rugged camper, and something that makes it so you can drive your vehicle under water. (They were, incidentally, having a seminar on “vehicle recovery” while I was there.) There were all manner of Jeeps, trucks, Land Rovers, vans, and at least one Unimog, all outfitted as would-be war rigs.

Henwood said overlanding is growing in popularity every year as people embrace self-sufficiency (take that!, AOC!). Overlanding excursions often last “for extended lengths of time (months to years),” says the event page. And with such a place to explore, it’s easy to understand why the overlanding crowd is loath to leave. The festival is held primarily in a field freshly cut for hay, surrounded by inviting forests on a hilltop with miles of Appalachian views. And despite their militant-looking winches, the overlanders, Henwood insists, don’t take themselves too seriously. Organizers of the “Overlanders Ball” encouraged attendees to “get your khaki vests, pith helmets, and other overland attire packed. This will make our Saturday night happy hour a little more comical.”

This was also a grand year for lighting bugs, which have finally begun to make their, ahem, retreat. Their splendor this summer competed some nights with the show put on by the starlit skies, emitting dazzling flashes like strobe lights in the sultry fields. It seemed a disservice not to savor their display – a sparkling spectacle serving no purpose, at least that I’m aware of, to humans except to delight us.

And delighted I was! In early July my family observed my monumental 30th birthday with a celebration of my roaring 20s (now onto the Great Depression!) and a mountain bike ride that included an epic “endo” wreck that seems to have knocked some sense into me. Now, as autumn descends upon us and I scrub cow colostrum out of my summer flannel, I realize it has taken me 30 summers to learn that, if we’re looking, God is favoring us with little lightning bugs (not “fireflies,” by the way, for they flash like lighting and don’t burn like fire) all the time….

Even in the summer!